Wanted -- employability skills: We're not preparing kids for work, and none of the candidates are talking about it

We're failing the next generation if we don't come up with a coherent national youth policy

Published March 22, 2016 11:59AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump   (Reuters/Stephen Lam/Jonathan Drake/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump (Reuters/Stephen Lam/Jonathan Drake/Photo montage by Salon)

It has long been understood that structural unemployment is a source of community decline. “A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed,” the American sociologist William Julius Wilson has written, “is different from a neighborhood in which people are poor and jobless.” Yet while the federal government has made substantial investments in communities, especially affluent ones, through infrastructure, tax and housing incentives, there is little consensus on what policy creates more jobs for young Americans seeking employment: one that provides them jobs or one that prepares them for jobs.  

By blaming U.S. trade policy as a culprit for America’s uneven economic recovery, it appears presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have tapped into a certain insecurity among voters.  Both Sanders and Trump have been critical of free trade agreements and made similar promises that if elected president they will bring jobs back to America. But regardless of what you think about the North American Free Trade Agreement or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, neither accord is a strategy for increasing employability skills of youth – the next generation of America’s workforce.

To be sure, economic inequality is the defining challenge of our time. The mismatch between skilled job opportunities and well-educated and prepared job applications has caught the attention of elected officials across the country. In 2014, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law, the first major reform of the public workforce system in the past two decades, and last year the Obama administration launched Tech Hire, a multi-sector initiative that aspires to connect people who want opportunity to employers who need talent.

Yet despite these efforts, other local initiatives and a declining unemployment rate, youth participation in the labor market is barely increasing. As a result, youth are missing out on certain skills and experiences that have emerged as indispensable for success in the workforce. Skills have become the global currency of 21st century economies, but opportunities for youth to demonstrate what they can produce in classrooms are occurring less frequently. Indeed, for all the hand-wringing around increasing inequality, chronic disengagement at the secondary level poses significant challenges in improving economic outcomes for youth.

Left alone to find value in classroom experiences diluted by constant testing from federal and state accountability provisions, high school students are especially at risk from becoming chronically disengaged. And if these students find school irrelevant, they can make short-term decisions without understanding the full scope of long-term opportunities they forgo.

Today’s schooling experience is not set up to prepare young people for work. The jobs of tomorrow require different skills than the cookie-cutter proficiency labels our education system prescribes for young people. Rote memorization is less important than critical thinking in today’s economy. Creative problem solvers have rendered assembly-line workers obsolete. And the proliferation of start-ups and initial public offerings, and the ease of developing products in today’s economy, has only hardened the belief among young Americans that what you know matters less than what you can do.

A report issued by Pew in 2014 found that only 46 percent of employed millennials believe their education was very useful in preparing them for a job or career. As a result of this type of disengagement, there are now 5.5 million opportunity youth in this country – young people who have become disconnected from education or career opportunities. But if Hillary Clinton, John Kasich and Ted Cruz have been running across the country articulating policies that would expose more youth to new working environments and skills that have real currency in today’s labor market, that message has failed to cut through the demagogic rhetoric consuming this election.

Perhaps presidential candidates hesitate to promote investments in youth because those investments are likely to reap more long-term than immediate returns. Up until now, the most noteworthy mention of the need to expand vocational training came from former presidential contender Marco Rubio who courageously, if not correctly, spoke about the need for more welders and less philosophers in our economy.  

The remaining candidates miss an opportunity to influence job creators by not talking about how investments in youth would lead to eventual employer benefits such as decreased turnover costs, more diversity among staff, and increased employee engagement and motivation. Moreover, candidates also miss an opportunity to articulate that it’s not just youth who stand to lose from being out of work but also businesses who miss out on potential opportunities to increase productivity and gain competitive advantages.

If our future president is not spending time trying to shift employer mind-sets to be more youth-focused, reform-minded foundations, nonprofits and mission-driven-for-profit organizations are more than willing to do so.  According to the Harvard Business School, many companies have already adopted a shared value concept, which stipulates that businesses can increase profits and also address pressing social problems at the same time, such as youth unemployment.  

Consider the following three talent pipeline strategies happening across the country. The 100,000 Opportunities Initiative is the nation’s largest employer-led coalition committed to creating pathways to meaningful employment for America’s young people by placing 100,000 youth into jobs, internships and apprenticeships by 2018. IBM partnered with New York to create 9-14 school models where students are paired with mentors, receive high school degrees and industry-recognized two-year postsecondary degrees, and are first in line for employment after graduation. And 12 for Life is the product of a partnership between a wire and cable manufacturing company in Georgia and the Carroll County School System, which combines classroom instruction while allowing students to work regular hours and earn actual wages.  

These pipeline strategies are happening without a coherent national youth policy. In fact, employers appear to be increasingly benefiting not from any particular federal policy but from the assistance of intermediary organizations. Grads of Life, for example, is a national campaign that helps employers across the U.S. meet the growing demand for entry-level talent. The campaign aspires to connect businesses with disengaged and disconnected youth and provides tools for employers to offer mentorships, internships and school-to-work strategies. These campaigns not only engage employers in narrowing the skills gap, but also help calculate for them how investments in youth are in their economic interest.

Despite positive changes made by employers to their own hiring practices and investment strategies such as JPMorgan Chase’s new $75 million initiative to expand high-quality career-focused education programs that lead to well-paying jobs and long-term careers, it behooves presidential candidates to update their stump speech to provide more workforce coherence to career centers, workforce development boards and youth providers.  

One way to accomplish that would be to start talking about the importance of changing the culture of state agencies administering public assistance programs from compliance-driven to skill building. While most of WIOA funding helps job seekers access employment, training and education services, the law is not developing the mentoring capacity of supervisors – the key stakeholders interacting with youth once they enter the workforce.

Building supervisor capacity presents an opportunity to tackle economic inequality by affecting the larger social system that youth inhabit. We know that when jobs don’t pay enough, workers turn to public assistance in order to meet their basic needs. By training supervisors as mentors who can provide opportunity youth with skills they need to succeed in professional settings, WIOA funds could begin to create linkages between public assistance and the need for commensurate professional development. While federal regulations and performance metrics are still being finalized for WIOA, our next president could use his or her political capital to ensure that all accountability provisions begin tracking both supervisor and worker outcomes.

As we get closer to the general election, pundits and voters should insist on hearing how each of the nominees aspire to increase employability skills for our nation’s youth and specifically how they will leverage WIOA funding to support regional and local workforce plans. The more the Republican and Democrat nominees debate about how they plan to change the perception of youth investments, changing employer hiring practices and strengthening workforce development policies, the more likely that a stronger bipartisan collation with a flexible youth agenda would emerge. And that agenda, which might look different across the country, will create more opportunities for our youth to acquire valuable employability skills and a better future for all Americans.

Jonathan Hasak is an associate director for the Metro North Regional Employment Board in Massachusetts and is writing a book about youth disengagement. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanHasak.

By Jonathan Hasak

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Elections 2016 Wioa Work Workforce Innovation And Opportunity Act